Takashi Miike is probably the hardest working director in the world right now. He averages about three films a year compared to most directors’ one or even one every two years. In 2003, the year Gozu came out, he made 6 films! What’s more he’s a remarkably varied director producing films in genres as diverse as horror, sci-fi, comedy, even kids’ films and romantic comedies. He even produced a video game adaptation that wasn’t terrible!
Given his workload you might think Miike would be something of a hack, quickly cranking out films to a set formula with little regard for quality; but this couldn’t be more wrong. Many of his films (Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins) are modern masterpieces and he employs differing visual styles in all his films, something even the best auteurs seldom do.
In short his films don’t feel like they’re made by a man rushed off his feet but by a thoughtful artist.
So why doesn’t Gozu? Because this feels like the kind of thing Roger Corman would do back in the day when he had a spare set for a weekend. Rather than waste it he’d commission a quickie screenplay and film it with the money and sets left over. Little Shop of Horrors came about that way and whilst I have no idea what the genesis behind Gozu was it feels very much like there wasn’t even a script, rather Miike just filmed his actors wandering around Nagoya improvising and then edited it into something resembling a story.
And I say resembling a story because Gozu is as elliptical and obtuse as any art film you’re likely to watch. Most of the film consists of a confused looking man wandering around a nondescript town and having incomprehensible nonsense conversations with locals about why they’ve served him two meals or whether the weather is hotter today than it was yesterday.
And yet Gozu is a memorable and often hilarious film that I don’t regret seeing in the slightest.
The “plot” (please note the use of sarcastic quotation marks, I’ve read phonebooks with more plot) starts simply enough but is quirky from the beginning. Minami (Yuta Sone) and Ozaki (Sho Aikawa) are Yakuza. Ozaki is going mad, he’s starting to think that everything is out to get him, including (in probably the film’s best scene) tiny dogs. Minami’s Yakuza masters order him to take Ozaki to Nagoya to kill him and drop his body off at a “disposal centre.” Minami struggles a bit with the mission that he has to kill his friend but this issue is rather neatly sorted out for him when Ozaki accidentally dies in a car crash. Although this does cause a new problem for Minami when his friend’s body goes missing, apparently under its own power and is wandering around Nagoya somewhere.
Okay so we’ve got a dead body wandering around but otherwise that’s a pretty decent set up for a quirky detective story. We don’t get that though. What we get in the middle is a combination of scenes that are insane, nonsensical, boring or all four as Minami wanders aimlessly and singularly fails to be any kind of detective.
Eventually (and I am going to spoil the ending here guys) Minami does find Ozaki. In a woman’s body. And yes you read the sentence correctly. As best as I can make out (since nothing is explicitly stated in the film itself) Ozaki wandered off to the “disposal centre” he was supposed to go to in the first place and arranges for his physical body to be destroyed. He then possesses some poor girl and shows up to seduce Minami. Minami then takes his friend’s ghost in the form of a horny woman back to his bosses who understandably think he is insane (I don’t blame them, I’ve just re-read that sentence). Then when he thinks his bosses are going to deflower his friend’s ghost in a woman’s body Minami murders his boss and shags her himself. The woman then gives birth to his friend, as a fully grown adult complete with tattoos and they all ride off into the sunset.
Although that opening and ending are strange enough on their own they only take up about 40 minutes of the films 129 minute running time and are the only scenes that have any relevance to what might, if we’re being incredibly charitable, call the plot.
What then makes up the rest of the film. Stuff, stuff makes up the rest of the film. Stuff that ranges from the fantastical, such as as a cow headed demon that comes to Minami in the middle of the night and licks him or a lactating middle aged woman bottling her breast milk to sell to children and restaurants, to the completely mundane. However even the mundane is rendered bizarre either by the strange acting choices, such as a man in the restaurant talking about how today is cold, but yesterday was hot, it definitely was because he had short sleeves on and he doesn’t today or due to Miike’s directing. The example that sticks in my mind most is a scene of Minami talking with two inn keepers. The content of the conversation is completely mundane but it’s shot with Minami and the Inn Keepers entirely off screen behind a wall panel so the audience can’t see the actors speaking. Instead the camera is set high on the ceiling focused on a lamp.
Is it supposed to be a distancing effect reminding us we’re watching a film? Is it intended to place us in the role of a voyeur? Does it hint at some malevolent watcher? I frankly have no idea and I’d suspect neither does Miike because the sensation I had watching this film was that all the bizarre imagery amounted to nothing more than Miike messing with the audience because he thinks it’s funny to do so. That the reason he puts the camera there, or has one character wander around with half his face covered in chalk is because he’s thinking
“Wait, wait, cover his face in chalk!”
“But why boss?”
“Because it’ll mess with the film critic’s heads.”
“Yeah but what does it mean?”
“What does it matter, it looks weird!”
I’d be hard pressed to identify exactly what gives me this feeling that Miike is just messing with us and the best I can point to is one thing in the film and some evidence from the director’s commentary. The commentary evidence is there is at least one scene where exactly what I’ve described happens. There is a fourth wall breaking moment where we see that one character is literally reading from a script when she talks to people and can’t deviate from it. This is because the actress spoke terrible Japanese and could only read from her script phonetically. Miike liked the effect so much he decided to use it despite it having no intrinsic meaning in the film.
The evidence in the film comes from almost the third of fourth line of dialogue spoken in it. Ozaki leans in closer to the camera and whispers “what I’m about to tell you is a joke.” It’s as if he’s the voice of Miike stating directly to the viewer that he’s messing with us.
It can’t really be all made up though. With as many sfx set pieces as there are in this it must have been pre-planned and some of the symbolic elements must have a purpose to them. And it wouldn’t matter if Miike intended a meaning to anything or not, I’m a firm believer in the death of the author and there is certainly enough symbolic meat in here for someone to dig their teeth into if they’re so inclined.
So if I had to speculate, what do I think the film is “really” about (in sarcastic quotation marks)? Well I think the basic structure is that Ozaki changes into a different state (he goes from alive to dead in the film but this may be symbolic of some other change) and Minami has to undergo some kind of ordeal to achieve the same transformation and becomes the same state as Ozaki which he does when they’re re-united at the end. As for what that change is? That’s harder to answer and there are a few possible interpretations. Homosexuality seems to be the most obvious one since Miike often makes it a theme in his films. Minami is a virgin for most of the film until he has sex with his “brother” Ozaki. Now Ozaki is in a woman’s body at the time but once they have sex the male Ozaki re-appears as if Minami had to realise that what he really wanted was the male Ozaki all along. This is also reinforced by the restaurant owner who was said to have died three years ago but like Ozaki seems to be up and walking around despite this. The restaurant owner is clearly coded gay since he wears women’s clothing and has sex to gay porn at one point so dying in this film’s terminology may symbolise realising one’s own homosexuality. There’s also the fact that Ozaki’s death is caused by a car accident caused in turn by a piece of bone, a play on “boner.”
This is just one interpretation though and the film is open to many others. One poster on imdb has a theory that it’s about entering into adulthood with the younger Minami following his older brother through puberty and that seems to fit a lot of the imagery very well too. Or it could be about coming to terms with death as a natural part of life.
Bottom line though, would I recommend watching this film?
Well firstly, full disclosure, I watched this film in less than ideal conditions. I was at a party with friends and was plenty drunk by the time we got around to Gozu. With those caveats I’d say that actually watching Gozu is a bit of an ordeal. There are moments that are really funny intentionally (the dog scene in particular is a highlight) and moments that may or may not have been intended to be funny but which nonetheless my drunken friends and I found hysterical. The sequence with Minami going from shop to shop reached Pythonesque levels of surreal hilarity for my friends. However the majority of the film is just frustratingly obtuse and boring.
However, it has stayed with me. The imagery is so striking and original that I’ve found myself thinking about Gozu since I watched it and the more I think about it the more I find myself liking the film. There is something to the strange dream like world that it presents that is inherently fascinating.
Plus if you’ve never seen a woman give birth to a full grown man, well, it has that going for it at least.
So yes, Gozu gets a recommendation.